Paonia, about seventy miles from Grand Junction, is no one's idea of a metropolis: All 1,800 of the town's citizens could fit into Denver's Paramount Theatre with room to spare, and its downtown, spread out along the optimistically named Grand Avenue, is two blocks in length, no doubt making parades rather short-lived. As such, it's hardly a place most people would expect to find a burgeoning multimedia enterprise. But while High Country News, located in a converted auto parts store that can be found, appropriately enough, on Grand's left side, may not be much of a threat to Scripps-Howard or Hearst, the venture is impressive nevertheless, encompassing a biweekly, nationally distributed newspaper celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this year, as well as growing Internet, radio, news service and book-publishing projects. And that's not bad considering that even HCN's publisher, Ed Marston, describes the environmentally focused paper as "a difficult read."
Of course, Marston, who's been running HCN alongside his wife, editor Betsy Marston, since 1983, doesn't mean that as a pejorative critique of the paper, which is among the most literate of all advocacy publications. Rather, he's simply suggesting that it is written for a very specific audience. "It requires that people think of themselves as citizens of the West, not just citizens of Colorado or Wyoming or wherever," he says. "They have to care about the federal estate and how it transcends a particular boundary. And they also have to be fairly sophisticated about natural-resource issues. They've got to care about who runs the Bureau of Land Management and who's the chief of the Forest Service."
On the surface, a readership this specialized wouldn't seem large enough to pay HCN's light bills, let alone support numerous spinoffs. But the paper's subscription base is 22,000 strong and includes government types, lobbyists and big-city journalists who prize the publication for its ability to spot environmental issues that have not yet popped up on the national radar screen. A USA Today piece about the biweekly that appeared in May quoted Mark Rey, a Republican aide working on the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee, declaring HCN to be "a pretty good barometer of the thinking of environmental groups in the intermountain West," while a more recent piece in SEJournal, a quarterly put out by the Society of Environmental Journalists, noted that outgoing Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt peruses it regularly. Babbitt has also been a guest on HCN's weekly radio program, heard locally on Boulder's KGNU-FM/88.5 Mondays at 4 p.m., as have heavy hitters such as writer John McPhee and Idaho senator Larry Craig. Moreover, reporters at publications such as the New York Times and the Washington Post often use HCN as an idea mine. Read a story in HCN one month, and odds are good that versions on the same subject will turn up in other newspapers the next.
This state of affairs doesn't appear to bother Ed, a crusading type who's more concerned with the word getting out than in receiving credit for spreading it; although he's pleased whenever HCN is referenced in articles that build upon his paper's work, he says the message is what matters most. But at the same time, he admits that the publication has become increasingly pragmatic over the years, concentrating less on convincing the masses that environmentalism isn't some sort of strange nature cult and more on finding ways to get better rules and regulations implemented. This hasn't pleased the movement's greenest zealots, who tend to see any willingness to compromise as a fatal flaw, nor has it necessarily reassured conservative types convinced that HCN remains inveterately liberal. Yet Ed insists that the less doctrinaire approach pays dividends through greater objectivity. "We are activists, but we always try to respectfully present the other side's point of view," he says. "And we try not to demonize people just because they disagree with us -- except, I must admit, off-road-vehicle people." Laughing, he adds, "We think riding through forests and grasslands on motorized buggies is too destructive an activity. But who knows -- maybe someday we'll mellow on that, too."
In the beginning, HCN was anything but laid-back. It was founded in 1970 by Tom Bell, a Wyoming rancher and wildlife biologist who was mad as hell about what was happening to the natural wonders of his state. To that end, he purchased a benign existing publication -- Camping News Weekly, which Ed describes as "the kind of paper that used to run the 'trailer of the week' on its cover" -- and transformed it into the crusading voice for environmentalism in the Rockies. After three years of chest-thumping, Bell grew disillusioned and sold HCN to a handful of true believers.
The sheet changed hands a few more times during the next decade, becoming a nonprofit along the way, and by 1983, the shoestring operation, then headquartered in Lander, Wyoming, was fraying -- a not-uncommon fate among such publications. For instance, the indiosyncratic Mountain Gazette died in 1979 despite an active cult of fans, only to reappear this month as a magazine helmed by Sol Day News vet Curtis Robinson. HCN's saviours, as it turned out, were the Marstons, a couple with East Coast roots (Ed had been an associate professor of physics at New Jersey's Ramapo College, whereas Betsy was best known as a producer, filmmaker and sometime anchor for a public-TV station in New York) who in 1974 had chucked big-city life in favor of Paonia, close to where they'd built a summer cabin. Following their arrival in Colorado, they had started a newspaper, the North Fork Times, and after selling it, they created another, the Western Colorado Report. Still, they were uncertain about their future when they learned that HCN was on the market. "It was a wonderful opportunity for us to stay in the West," Betsy points out, "but we told them we were only interested if we could move the paper to where we were." After the board of directors agreed, HCN's assets were made ready for transport to Paonia. "They came here in a pickup," Betsy remembers. "We got a great photo file, a list of, I think, 3,400 subscribers, and a couple of chairs."
Things built steadily from there. In 1986, HCN released its first book, Western Water Made Simple, on the Island Press imprint; two years later it put out Reopening the Western Frontier. More recently, Ed penned 35,000 words for photographer John Fielder's big-selling coffee-table favorite, Colorado 1870-2000, and helped oversee HCN tomes including Water in the West, a collection of articles issued by Oregon State University Press, and this year's Living in the Runaway West, put out by Golden's Fulcrum Publishing. The last offering compiles pieces from Writers on the Range, HCN's syndicated news distribution arm. Founded three years ago, the service sends out columns by a variety of HCN staffers and freelancers (including Westword contributor Marty Jones) to 62 newspapers in the region, including the Denver Post, the Arizona Republic and the Las Vegas Sun. The work of the Rangers emphasizes the writerly qualities that are now as much a part of HCN as its conservationist slant. As HCN senior editor Paul Larmer puts it, "A lot of them are written from personal experiences. They weave in the larger issues, but not at the expense of good writing."
The radio show, launched in 1998, is gaining ground, too; fifteen public-radio stations air it. But because of the workload involved, Betsy, the program's host, would like to see the number of outlets double or even quadruple during the next few years. As for the Internet, the Marstons started putting the entire editorial content of each issue online at hcn.org last year, and thus far, 500 subscriptions have been ordered this way. However, they can't help but worry about all those readers who aren't buying HCN because they can now get it for free -- an indication that keeping a staff of eighteen people fed and clothed isn't easy, even in a burg where the cost of living isn't exactly at Aspen-like extremes.
Fortunately, Paonia, whose residents once looked upon HCN sorts as dangerous interlopers, has by now embraced this odd little media empire. "Everyone loves our interns, especially," Betsy says. "If they see someone young whom they don't recognize, they'll come up to them and say, 'You must be the new High Country News intern' and then try to set them up with somebody."
"There are probably still people working in the coal mines and the ranches around here who think we're full of it," adds Larmer. "But for the most part, people see us as part of the community. And we like it that way."
As the Daily turns: Last week, representatives of the employee-owned Colorado Daily announced that they had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection -- a move that likely surprised no one who eyeballed the November 23 edition of this column, which recounted a baffling series of events surrounding the muckraking Boulder publication.
To recap: In late October, the Boulder County Business Journal reported that the Daily had been put up for sale after its former finance director, Mark Breese, took off with about a quarter-million smackers from its coffers -- but just days later, Daily publisher Russell Puls insisted in the pages of the Boulder Daily Camera that the paper wasn't on the block and was in fact moving aggressively to expand its circulation beyond Boulder to college campuses elsewhere in the Denver metro area. But even as Puls was making this claim, a listing for the Daily, which put its asking price at $3.9 million, was still on a Web site straightforwardly dubbed publicationsforsale.com.
The information continues to appear at this cyber-address, and Puls is no longer playing coy about it: "We've decided to keep the listing with the broker to see if there's the right fit out there for us someplace," he says. The reason for this change of tune has everything to do with a financial crisis that began with the Breese situation and became even more complicated during recent months. According to Puls, the Daily owed $700,000 to Bank One and over $823,000 to Fidelity National Bank, not counting debts to the Internal Revenue Service and the Colorado Department of Revenue dating back as far as 1998. Negotiations with Bank One subsequently collapsed, and the institution called its loan. At that point, money-changers at Bank One and Fidelity discovered that the loans had been cross-collateralized, meaning that the Daily had used the same collateral (mainly its home, at 5505 Central Avenue in Boulder) for both loans without telling either bank -- a highly dubious move Puls blames on "past management" that would have included Breese and ex-Daily publisher Chris Harburg. Fidelity, which held the first mortgage on the Daily, reacted by calling its loan as well, thereby causing the entire house of cards to collapse.
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On the surface, this situation would seem to render the Daily a terminal patient, but Puls won't admit it. He swears that current revenues are good and advertisers are sticking around, and he predicts that the paper will emerge from under the bankruptcy's shadow in "between 12 and 24 months -- and hopefully we'll be on the earlier side of that." Moreover, he says that expansion plans will continue. But at the same time, he allows that several parties have expressed curiosity about the Daily and will probably soon be exploring their options further.
If they come calling, Puls might do well to keep them away from Daily editor Pam White. Previously in this space, she expressed surprise that the paper had been put up for sale, but she now says that toward the end of Harburg's tenure as publisher, a potential buyer had actually met with her and numerous Daily shareholders, "and I'd really grilled the guy, which might have scared him off.
"I love this paper, and I love what we're able to do and the latitude we're able to have as an independent," she goes on. "And I'd hate to see that change."